Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Lockdown fieldwork

Brenneke Nunatak (photo: Andy Stevenson-Jones)
My phone rang. I glanced down; the number started +881. Unusual.

“Hi Pippa, it’s Jas”.

This was surprising for two reasons. One, the only person I know called Jas was somewhere in Antarctica. Two, there was no delay on the line, and I could hear this person loud and clear.

It was Jas. “I’ve fixed the GPS at Brenneke Nunatak, do you want me to add comms?”

This is not the sort of question that is easy to answer at short notice but having spent several years coordinating a complex Antarctic field program from my desk back in the UK I know that decisions sometimes need to be made quickly, and making the right decision relies on clear communication.

The last time someone called my mobile from Antarctica it was the middle of the night and I was kipping on a friend’s sofa in Sheffield. At least I had a computer in front of me this time.

GPS antenna at Mount Ivins (photo: Andy and Jas)

Jas was visiting one of the 30 or so UKANET GPS instruments that are attached to rocky outcrops across Antarctica and provide crucial data on how the land beneath the ice sheet is deforming. The information helps us determine how quickly the ice sheet is melting as well as providing information on the rheological properties of the Earth – essentially how squishy it is.

Jas had flown to this site in a small plane with two other people, pilot Ollie and field guide Catrin.

“Say hi to them”, I said. I had worked with both of them back in 2016 and, unlike some working partnerships, you tend to remember the people who landed a plane in tricky circumstances or hauled multiple sledge-loads of kit up an icy slope.

Important to have the right cable! (photo: Andy Stevenson-Jones)

Jas and I quickly established what he had done to get the instrument running and discussed possible next steps. It is invaluable to be able to discuss options with the engineers from the comfort of my spare room – one way in which technology has revolutionised our ability to carry out smart science in even the remotest locations.

Decisions made, I left Jas to fly to the next site and tried to remember what I’d been working on ten minutes earlier.

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GPS antenna at Welch Mountains (photo: Jaskiran Nagi)

This season’s fieldwork is a monumental achievement given the pandemic restrictions that have been in place for the last year. I am aware that this is one of only a few projects to get field-time this season, made possible by the fact that I run the project from the UK, making use of the skills of BritishAntarctic Survey (BAS) personnel who were heading south anyway as part of the slimmed-down team. I am incredibly grateful to BAS for making the work possible.

The basic logistics of getting equipment and people in the right place at the right time is challenging in a normal year, but with constantly evolving rules necessitating multiple changes of plan, flexibility has been crucial this year, along with an ability to smile every time I receive an email that says, “things have changed somewhat since my email of two hours ago…”.

Our plan this year was to install new, state-of-art instruments at a group of sites where we have been struggling to gather year-round data. The new Resolute instruments, developed by Canadian company Xeos, combine a GNSS receiver with an Iridium modem in a single low-power unit that can withstand the polar winter. However, these precision instruments are not sitting on a shelf waiting to be deployed, they are custom-made and needed to be rigorously tested by UNAVCO – the international geodesy hub based in the US – before they could be shipped to me.

Resolute (lower left), batteries and a lot of wires at Traverse Mountains (photo: Andy Stevenson-Jones)

“Our cold chamber is broken, and we can’t find anyone to fix it.” This was in the depths of the pandemic. The period when we all realised this was serious and the planet went into shutdown.

I have no idea how they managed it, but somehow Xeos and UNAVCO sourced the parts and the personnel to build and test 7 Resolutes and ship them to the UK in time for earlier-than-usual BAS cargo deadlines. Due to the uncertainty of getting planes into Antarctica via a Covid-free route, everything was heading south on a ship this year, and that ship was leaving soon!

GPS antenna at Jensen Nunatak (photo: Jaskiran Nagi)

I am particularly grateful to everyone at Durham University who helped me track down someone who could pay the hefty import duty at short notice (universities are not letting academics loose with credit cards at the moment) and avoid the dreaded ‘return to sender if duty is not paid within 5 days’.

Despite one delivery notification reading ‘left at front door’ – you do not want to know the value of this shipment! – BAS patiently confirmed that all my cargo made it into the building, into the right pile of stuff, onto the right ship, and eventually to the right polar base.

From there the BAS engineers take up the reins. Like the cargo, they had jumped through various quarantine hoops and endured a long journey south on a ship. I usually meet with them face-to-face before they head south, to brief them on the project and this season’s tasks, but this year we were consigned to Zoom. These meetings are crucial.

Although the engineers will have detailed instructions for each site – necessary when snow is blowing in your face at -15  ̊C and your brain has frozen – it is important to build a working relationship and get them to trust me, and for them to realise that I trust them.

Good weather at Welch Mountains (photo: Jaskiran Nagi)

We share tips between incoming and outgoing engineers, and I explain that when it comes to coaxing technical instruments back to life, armed with a few spare bits of cable and a lot of sticking tape, they are the experts and I welcome their ideas. They have come up with some impressive solutions over the years, and as we head towards the end of fieldwork season, the new Resolute instruments have been deployed and are ready to face their first Antarctic winter.

battery box and solar panel at Mount Ivins (photo: Andy and Jas) 



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